“Indian Health Service” and “effectiveness” don’t often appear in the same sentence without some negative words in between. But Rosebud Sioux President Rodney Bordeaux says IHS is effectively distributing coronavirus vaccines to his people:
When the vaccines came online in December, Rosebud Sioux President Rodney Bordeaux faced a tough choice. He could either go through the state of South Dakota to get them, which in his view hasn’t taken the virus seriously enough, or go with the perennially underfunded IHS; the tribe has a still pending lawsuit over past appalling conditions at the local hospital.
“We were afraid, our people were a lot afraid,” Bordeaux said. “We didn’t have the resources, we thought we’d be getting left behind.”
After a lot of phone calls and lobbying, the tribe rolled the dice and went with the IHS anyway. And Bordeaux said it paid off. Recently the tribe has been vaccinating its communities at near double the rate of South Dakota. An analysis by NPR shows that Rosebud is not unique. Across Indian Country, tribes are getting shots in people’s arms at far faster rates than U.S. averages.
“We’ve even had non-Indian people from Sioux Falls and Omaha trying to get in here to get vaccinated because they can’t get it over there,” Bordeaux said [Kirk Siegler, “Why Native Americans Are Getting Covid-19 Vaccines Faster,” NPR: Morning Edition, 2021.02.19].
Part of IHS’s vaccine advantage is another bane of Kristi Noem’s existence, central planning:
Analysts say it may not be perfect but the IHS is at least a centralized system. In Rosebud there’s an existing database of the some 15,000 people hospital officials are trying to reach during the vaccination campaign. Earlier in the pandemic, they set up an infrastructure for mass testing, so pivoting to vaccinations has gone relatively smoothly [Siegler, 2021.02.09].
Community ownership and pre-pandemic investments in public health care are also helping tribal communities speed vaccinations to their communities. Tribal communities are among leaders in vaccination rates in Minnesota. Nationwide, IHS is delivering vaccines at rates comparable to the leading states. And in this morning’s really loose correlation, Alaska, New Mexico, and South Dakota have the three highest one-dose coronavirus vaccine rates in the nation, and they also have the first-, third-, and fourth-highest percentages of Native Americans in their populations. (Oklahoma has the second-highest Native population percentage and the twelfth-highest vaccination rate.)
So I have to wonder: when the South Dakota Department of Health brags about its leadership in vaccinating South Dakotans against coronavirus, how much credit should they be giving to the tribes and Indian Health Service?
Related Reading: IHS is responding to a pandemic that has hit tribal communities harder than any other ethnic group in the United States:
In South Dakota, coronavirus has been more than three times as deadly to our Lakota neighbors than to our white population: